The other day my mom e-mailed me this blog post where a woman talks about essential oils actually making her sick. From her discription it sounds as if she is having an allergic reaction to them and I was surprised at how similar her symptoms were to the ones I have when I eat oils except of course her symptoms clear up much faster than mine. I’m thinking that might have to do with method of exposure.
Unlike the woman in the blog I reference above. I have not been sick from inhaling essential oils that I know of. (I do sometimes have allergic reactions to inhaling scents from random strangers but I don’t know why.) I have used some citrus essential oils externally after I discovered my sensitivity with no ill effects, but I have made a point of not consuming them internally at all since then.
Are essential oils vegetable oils? I’m not 100% sure. They are oils and they come from plants but they are not typically made in the same fashions as food grade vegetable oils. To be called true essential oils they must be made via distillation or hydrodistillation. (read more about how essential oils made here)
It sounds as if the beginning of the process of making essential oils is similar to making hydrosols. A still and water are used to remove extracts from plant material into water. (see my post about making hydrosols at home) After the initial extraction, essential oils are further distilled to remove all of the water and leave only plant oil.
It reminds me of the coca plant which natives of south America brew into a mildly stimulating tea much like coffee and other people distill into a devastating drug called cocaine. Think of a hydrosol as a coca tea and of essential oil as cocaine. The difference is in the possessing and the strength. There are many claims about essential oils. I don’t know if they are true but I do know that the chemicals in them are stronger than the plants that they come from, which means they should probably be treated like medicine. That is, not used liberally.
There are some oils that are not technically essential oils that are used similarly, they are called expressed oils, absolutes, and CO2 extracts.
Expressed oils are generally citrus or bergimont oils, they used to be made via cold pressing or ecuelle a piquer, but modern extractors mostly use use centrifugal force. The process is generally like distillation in that water is used to soak the plant material but physical pressure is used to extract the scents rather than heat.
Delicate flowers such as jasmine, tuberose, carnation, gardenia, jonquil, violet leaf, narcissus, and mimosa need to be extracted using using solvents, generally petroleum ether, methanol, ethanol, or hexane instead of water to extract the volatile scent compounds. The chemicals are then distilled leaving the extracts which are then added to oil or alcohol and called absolutes to distinguish them from essential oils.
Hypercritical carbon dioxide (CO2) extraction is a relatively new process using CO2 condensed into its liquid form to dissolve plant extracts. The extracts are then removed from the CO2 and added to alcohol or oil to form an essential oil like finished product.
Although I have not had any reactions from contact with essential oils specifically, I have had problems with store bought citrus juices. (I mention this on my oil list page.) Apparently citrus juices use flavor packs made from the peals of the citrus fruits. These flavor packs are also described as volatile oils. I do not know if the processes that are used to make flavor packs are the same as are used to make citrus essential oils but I do think it is good for anyone who has any reaction to essential or vegetable oils to be aware of the similarities in the processes so that they can pin point if there is a problem.